Would you like some sherry? It’s pre-war.
I was delighted to receive tickets from boxoffice.co.uk this week for Terrence Rattigan’s high-spirited 1944 comedy play Love in Idleness. It is not so often that I attend a play in the West End, and this was a delightful evening full of laughs and wit, excellent acting but, I must admit, an eventual feeling of wondering what the play was actually trying to tell me.
The audience is first introduced to a few clips from 1940s propaganda films describing English life during World War II. Once the curtain makes way for the stage, we are welcomed into a warm and luxurious London apartment in Swiss Cottage designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis. Olivia Brown (played by Eve Best) is laughing over the telephone, organising a future society dinner party. Olivia is living in the flat with her lover and partner John Fletcher, a married man who cannot leave the wife he loathes due to his important position at the Ministry of Tank Production. When Olivia hears that her son Michael, who is somewhere between 16 and 18 years old, is on his way back from a long trip to Canada, she is over the moon but is already afraid of how she will introduce John to him: indeed, as we soon learn, Michael is a left-wing reader of the “Daily Worker”. Once Michael discovers the truth, he tries everything to separate the two lovers, and doesn’t hesitate to bring in Fletcher’s actual wife Diana to create chaos. What ensues is Olivia leaving John and going off to live with her son in Baron’s Court, as they used to before he went away.
There are many themes that go through this play, such as wealth, young ideals, true love and loyalty. John is powerful and at the head of a ministry. The ridiculous and almost ugly name that is “Tank Production” may make us think of him as rough and cynical, but he is kind, loving and cares for the British Empire in a pure way, and wants to develop what he knows well: industry. He is also very loyal to his employees and loving to Olivia. Michael, who thinks he knows all about John, accuses him of betraying workers. Who shall we believe when sometimes we only have the press and biased biographies to rely on?
Before the following three acts, we are shown more clips from the period presenting the atmosphere of the time in more detail and taking us out of the apartment and into the London streets. In one particular clip before act 4 in which mother and son are now living in an unheated small flat on their own (the stage hands’ transition was admirable), someone is telling us about the plan of benefits and health for all. I appreciated this link to today’s world.
Legendary director Sir Trevor Nunn directs his actors with beautiful rhythm and lightness while pushing the references to young Michael imitating Hamlet, showing that you can rarely really escape Shakespeare!
The actors work splendidly together: Eve Best is highly entertaining and watchable as Olivia. She kept reminding me of someone, and it turned out it was Rachel from the TV show FRIENDS! Her mannerisms for this character, constant nerves and wish to always please everyone gave her a jumpy quality. This is the third time I’ve seen Best on stage, and she is truly a treasure.
Anthony Head was excellent as John Fletcher. I enjoyed the fact that behind his pompous title he was so kind, a fighter when it came to what he wanted in love and that he knew the London bus routes so well! Best and Head were a lovely pair.
Edward Bluemel as Michael Brown practically upstaged the two others thanks to his comic qualities. I enjoyed how he was physically still between boy and man – one minute jumping into his mother’s arms like a child or onto a bed because he “needs to think”, the next being highly convinced by his statements and defending his mother at all costs.
The relationship between mother and son was an interesting one, as Olivia too could not quite separate herself from the idea she had of her son before he went to Canada. This is shown for example in the fact that she can’t quite remember his age.
It turns out that Michael falls for Diana, Fletcher’s wife and reconsiders his feelings for John thanks to her. Charlotte Spencer played Diana with over the top class. This made it sort of surprising to me that Michael would fall for her.
So what about this play’s message, especially today? Is it saying that young passionate left-wingers are bound to change sides sooner or later? I would answer that “some will”. What is even more important here is that it is lust for a woman that is the cause for Michael wanting to provide for her and being attracted to money. The grand motivations that he first had shrink to his own life and very personal feelings.
This play by Rattigan is beautifully written but, despite the pleasant nostalgia we like to feel, its message and context really are of the past and do not stay in the audience’s mind for very long after. However, it is great entertainment and the production is a joy to watch.